Brier Island is a rugged diamond in Nova Scotia’s crown, home to industrious seafaring people, an amazing variety of flora and fauna, and some of the best sunsets you will ever see! Marking the entrance of the world-famous Bay of Fundy, Brier Island is a Nova Scotia’s eco-tourism destination that offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of the richest marine habitats and coastal environments in the world where the fishing boats still come and go as they have done for generations, the whales swim by as they have done since time immemorial, and the eternal tides rise and fall like clockwork. For those who are looking for an escape from hustle and bustle, it does not matter if you visit Brier Island in the warm sunshine or cloaked in mysterious fog – you can’t help but relax and slow down while you’re here.
For those of us that might not be familiar with the geography of the East Coast of Canada, Brier Island is located on the most southwesterly point of the province and sits at the entrance of the world famous Bay of Fundy. Regardless of how you are travelling to Nova Scotia whether by the CAT high-speed ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, Brier Island it is about a two and a half hour drive from the Yarmouth Ferry Terminal. If you are coming from Saint John, New Brunswick on the Fundy Rose Ferry once in Digby you’re only about an hour and a half drive away from Brier Island once you arrive at the terminal and about a four-hour drive from the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in coming by air including your travel times on the East Ferry on Digby Neck at Tiverton on Long Island and at Freeport, where you will catch the ferry to Brier Island. Good news unlike your airfare or ferries to get to Nova Scotia these ferries are FREE!
As you travel on the ferry from Freeport to Westport to the starboard you will see the Brier Island Lodge which is perched atop the cliffs of Brier Island overlooking the Bay of Fundy and with an amazing view of the very busy Grand Passage. It should come as no surprise that Virginia Tudor, the owner, and operator of the Brier Island Lodge has been extremely busy over the off-season upgrading the lodge as that has been part of her business plan for over 30 years now.
Virginia is proud to tell that before she had the lodge, she tried the bed and breakfast scene for a year or two. She learned from that experience that there was an opportunity to transition into the hotel business. “There was so much demand and only one other bed and breakfast on the island” said Virginia. She goes on to tell us about having up-to 50 people sleeping in that house every night during peak season. “It was really apparent that we needed to have a lodge here,” said Virginia.
Virginia continues to explain how she built the house on the location first, first, but that both the house and the business were built with the view in mind. “When I built my house, it wasn’t the typical design for the area. There’s a tradition in many small communities in Nova Scotia where the locals take tours of people’s homes when they’re built or renovated. What people wanted to do more than anything was stand on the deck and see the view. During that first year I must have had a hundred people tell me that this was the perfect place to build a lodge or hotel because of the view.”
So, taking that under advisement and looking at a fantastic business opportunity to help grow tourism on the island, Virginia built the original hotel with the help of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. At the time of the original build came with a lot of restrictions, so Virginia is open about not truly ending up with what we had in mind for the lodge. She quickly realized that they didn’t have enough rooms as they were almost immediately past capacity when they opened the lodge and knew that if they were going to survive as a business, they would need more rooms and so the off-season renovation began and to be honest have never really stopped.
With the additional rooms, it then became apparent that they needed a communal place, that wasn’t the dining room, for guests to gather to specifically enjoy the view. That’s when they built the lounge, which can easily accommodate and seat 50 people for any function. Additional renovations and expansions included adding-on to the dining and the addition of several more rooms, giving them 37 comfortable rooms to choose from. Most of the rooms have an ocean or lighthouse view and the vistas from our cliff top location above the village of Westport are magnificent! All rooms are smoke free with a private ensuite bath perfect after a day of whale watching or hiking on the island, you can also upgrade your reservation to rejuvenate in a room with a double jacuzzi.
The latest renovation includes an expansion of their second building to now offer larger rooms that can be converted to accommodate larger families or groups for longer and more comfortable stays. Which is a good thing because after you understand all that Brier Island offers you are going to want to stay a little longer and Virginia and her team at the Lodge are happy to offer their guests comfortable, oceanfront accommodations along with a unique Nova Scotia regional dining experience to get you ready to explore the Island or head to the bay for a one of the local whale watching tours offered by Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises and Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tour.
Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises is operated by Captain Harold Graham who was born and raised on Brier Island. Having lived by the Bay of Fundy he pursued a career in the fishing industry and has over 50 years experience navigating the Bay of Fundy. He also has over 30 years experience working with whales. He and Captain Trevor Moore and Captain Roy Small understood the importance of the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of Maine cetaceans and began to monitor the migrating whale’s presence in the bay in 1984. Because of public interest in the work that they were doing, Harold decided to start the first whale watch company in southwest Nova Scotia which has been providing tours to see the whales since 1986. These cruises are fully narrated by experienced naturalists like Shelley Lonergan who has over 25 years experience researching whales.
Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours is owned and operated by Penny Graham, lifelong resident of Westport, Brier Island. The company has been offering unique whale watching and seabird adventures since 1994. Captains Kenney and Chad Graham have navigated the waters of St. Mary’s Bay and the Bay of Fundy for some time. Both men are the sons of Penny and the late Captain Roy Albert Graham MB and are experienced captains and fishermen and you can be rest assured that with their knowledge of the sea your tour with Mariner Cruises will be safe and enjoyable. All tours are narrated by local naturalists and researchers, who are all well-versed in the dozens of mammals and bird species you will see while on the bay making each cruise informative and educational.
Both Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises and Mariner Cruises both play important roles in ongoing research and help fund marine biologist and local naturalists who monitor the animals that visit this important ecological region and summer feeding ground, nursery and play area for dozens of marine species, including whales, dolphins, seabirds and a colony of seals. As strong tidal currents bring nutrients close to the surface, increasing the productivity of plankton, which attracts large schools of herring and mackerel, which in turn provide food for the larger marine species.
Late spring and early summer see finback and minke whales and harbour porpoises to be the first to arrive from their southern breeding grounds. By mid June humpback whales return along with white-sided dolphins. By mid-July the water are active with whale and dolphin common until the fall.
If you are lucky, you will get a glimpse of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale or a Pilot Whale which are occasionally observed along with Orcas, Bluefin Tuna, Sea Turtles, Ocean Sunfish and Basking Sharks while out on the water. Beluga, Sperm and Blue Whales are known to inhabit the region but are rarely seen. We know that the whales are the headliners of the boat tours but do not forget to keep an eye out for bird species like Atlantic Puffins and several varieties of gannets, petrels, shearwaters and phalaropes while on the water.
We recommend that you book a tour on each provider as when you get to experience a whale breech up close and personal, a 3 to 4 hours tours seem to fly by in the blink of an eye and have you wanting to get back on the water ASAP for another encounter with these majestic creatures of the ocean.
Before or after your adventure on the water you can enjoy the 19.5-km loop trail near Westport. The trail is generally considered an easy route taking around 4 on average to complete. This trail is great for camping, hiking, and mountain biking, and it’s unlikely you’ll encounter many other people while exploring.
The island is a mecca to nature lovers for so many reasons. One of the big reasons is that it’s home to one of the world’s rarest plants: the Eastern Mountain Avens or Geum peckii. The only two places in Canada where this flower grows are here on Brier Island and in the East Ferry area of Digby Neck, not far away.
The flora of Brier Island is very plentiful and diverse due to seed drop from the many migrating birds that stopover in the area. There are actually twenty-one different species of orchids that grow here. Botanists travel from around the world to see the flora. The Eastern Mountain Avens are a protected plant species, so it’s a look with your eyes and no touch experience.
With the emphasis on nature and the reality of conservancy now, the Island has become a real centre for research. There are a lot of unique opportunities, especially for people who are into botany, here on the island. The bog here that the nature conservancy is reclaiming is only one of three of its type in North America. They’re raising the water levels in the bog to protect the Eastern Mountain Avens.
Approximately a third of the island is actually owned by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, and not just for the flora. The fauna plays a major role in the biodiversity of Brier Island. It is, in fact, one of the major resting spots for migratory birds on the eastern seaboard, like the sharp-shinned, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks that migrate to the island every fall by the hundreds. It’s something to see.
Residents and businesses on the Island are strong proponents of environmentalism and eco-tourism, so we asked Virginia what Brier Island Lodge is doing to support these initiatives. She proudly responded, “We’re in-line with the sustainability initiatives in Digby County, but we also try to go above and beyond. At the lodge we follow all the similar waste and cost reduction practices that all hotels do, in the way of on-demand linen refreshing. Being on wells rather than a town water supply makes water conservation extremely important to us, so plumbing is tailored for low consumption. We try to reduce the plastics used and opt for biodegradable products in all departments. We compost much of our kitchen waste and use the compost in our landscaping. We have on-site greenhouses that we use to grow some of our food in and focus on sourcing our food supplies within 100 kilometres to offer fresh, local dishes on our menu
Plus, recently the Brier Island Lodge was the perfect place to host an indoor event to promote and learn about the clean, renewable, and predictable energy that is being created by the power of the tidal currents in the Grand Passage. Why you might say, well first of all it has that amazing view of the Grand Passage, which includes the very large tidal power generating platform sitting in the middle of the Passage. This platform known as PLAT-I 6.40 is a very exciting advancement in clean, renewable, and predictable energy. In May of this year after many years of testing and hard work the platform is now sending power, created by the force of the spinning turbines, via a submerged cable to a power station in Freeport.
The platform (PLAT-I 6.40) is owned by Sustainable Marine Energy Ltd and to celebrate the achievement of power flowing to the grid SME welcomed political leaders, local business owners, stakeholders, and the general public to a reception at the Lodge and then guided tours of the tidal platform.
If you are interested in hosting your next corporate retreat on Brier Island, first and foremost know that it offers an escape from the over stimulating urban environment. Bringing employees to Brier Island can allow them to focus on the corporate goals, each other, and themselves. It is a place that can rejuvenate them, but also excite them with nature adventures, like hiking and the excitement of whale watching.
Plus, as we had mentioned before, they have 37 rooms of various set-ups, as well as a lounge and two dining rooms that can be adjusted to fit the needs of our retreat guests. Virginia also added, “Our kitchen facilities can be used by the group directly if they wish to prepare their own meals, which is an accommodation available in the off-season only or our chefs can create custom menus for any group.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As a trip to Brier Island and a stay at the Lodge has become a generational vacation destination for many families. Virginia explains, “It’s a sign that I’ve been in the business for a long time, but I’ve noticed more and more people are coming in with their families and telling me stories about when they were a kid and came with their parents for whale watching over a holiday weekend, or what have you. It’s very rewarding to make those connections.
The island is also one of those rare places where you can let your kids out the door to play. You don’t see that everywhere anymore. The island is their playground, “I mean, that’s how I grew up, and that’s priceless to share with others as part of their perfect vacation,” said Virginia.
I am confident from my own experiences on the island that you will not be disappointed if you put Brier Island on your list of Nova Scotia travel destinations, you will only be disappointed if you do not.
I would like to thank Amy Tudor in closing for the photos you see in this article as they are courtesy of her.
by Ryan Myson